6 Ways to Engage Busy Audiences

Brandon Carter|

photo, crowded street in York
The first assumption I made in writing this is that you won’t read it.

If we’re at all alike, we both read this kind of post… selectively. “Skimming” is another word for it.

And skimming comprises most of what we do online.

There are exceptions, but our time and attention is largely split between dozens of browser tabs (I have 23 open at the time of writing this), our smartphones and our actual jobs at any given moment.

None of the above erases our need to learn, however. Which is presumably why we entertain reading posts like this.

This post is about using the elements on a page to not only convey information in convenient formats for the skimming audience — but to get readers to pause and engage before moving on.


1. Headers Containing the Vital Information

As announced in the title, you can look forward to six key takeaways in this post. All of them are highlighted in headers. If you want to glean the most important information contained herein, you could skim the other insights in about 10 seconds and (hopefully) derive some actionable value.

Who am I kidding, you probably did that already, just to see if the rest of this post was worth reading. I can’t say I blame you. I would have done the same.


2. Generous White Space

The two most intimidating enemies of engagement are the Wall of Text and the Tiny Type.

White space, on the other hand, creates a welcoming, easily-navigable environment when used tastefully. Think of it like physical space.

Open space encourages lingering in a way cramped space certainly doesn’t. Would you rather spend ten minutes in a roomy reception lounge or three minutes in an elevator?

So it is with content and the room you afford it to breathe.

3. Visual Aides

Visual content can aid text in a number of ways.

1. It can emphasize an important point made in the text.

2. It can introduce an idea that, when juxtaposed with the text, creates a new, powerful idea. 1 + 1 = 3.

3. It can simply provide an accent for the overall reading experience. Like this one.


Image courtesy of Helga Weber on Flickr

Literal representations can be informative and are typical of what’s expected, but sometimes a more abstract direction gives the reader reason to pause and consider, and it never hurts for the reader to pause on your page. It means she’s engaged.


4. Modest Word Count

An adage from an old math teacher has always stuck with me: the answer that takes less ink is usually the right answer.

I’m not sure how well that applies to math, but it certainly applies to writing. Words just get in the way — especially extemporaneous use of adverbs and the passive voice. Next time you edit a post, see how many words you can eliminate to simplify expressions. You’ll end up with a cleaner draft that’s easier to read.


5. Pull Quotes

A prized magazine tactic, a pull-quote is the graphical treatment of an important quote in your content. Think of it as another visual aide that creates spacing and emphasis — an amalgamation of the tips we’ve already covered. Use sparingly for proper emphasis of content you deem telling.


6. Mobile Optimization

Lastly, if you’re reading this on a mobile device, all of the above should have aided your experience. After all, skimming is a native mobile activity growing in ubiquity.

Unsure of the mobile-friendliness of your site? Use Google’s free test below.

Other suggestions for engaging skim readers? Leave us a comment or tweet us @Outbrain.

Brandon Carter

Brandon Carter

Brandon Carter was an Outbrain content specialist. He began his career as a staff reporter for Maine's weekly "The Coastal Journal".

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